Composer. Conductor. Musician. Poet. Matthew Aucoin, whom peers and opera leaders have glowingly likened to a young Leonard Bernstein, inhabits all those roles well. The Boston Globe, NPR, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among other national outlets, have depicted him as a rising visionary in the classical world.
Grounded and confident onstage, Aucoin (pronounced “oh-KOIN”) is articulate and limber of thought in conversation, and laughs easily. The Massachusetts native, who recently settled in Pasadena with his partner, has conducted orchestras in several US cities (and Rome), and composed a handful of operas, including 2015’s warmly reviewed “Crossing,” inspired by Walt Whitman’s Civil War-era diaries. Last year he was named LA Opera’s artist-in-residence — a wide-ranging position created for him. He isn’t yet 30.
“The job’s openness matches the variety of things that I do, between composing and conducting,” he says of his LAO post. That includes working closely with about half a dozen singers in LAO’s Domingo Colburn Stein Young Artist program whom he will conduct in “Mozart: Truth Through Beauty,” a recital tour of five venues across greater Los Angeles, including Boston Court in Pasadena, the Huntington in San Marino, and the Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale.
“It’s an all-Mozart program spanning his whole musical output — all the way through the Requiem, which he wrote on his deathbed,” Aucoin explains, referencing the “crazy virtuosity” of Mozart’s earliest operatic efforts and the sublimity of his later works. “We are touring with a string quartet made up of players from the LA Opera orchestra and also a pianist, and treating it like an operatic performance.”
That relatively lean lineup is appropriate for the simplicity Aucoin says Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart pursued in his final years. The prodigiously gifted Austrian composer was all of 35 when he died in 1791.
“Musical challenges that would destroy most of us always came easily to him,” Aucoin notes. “He didn’t have any trouble writing the most dense contrapuntal music. He didn’t have trouble playing the most virtuosic stuff at the keyboard. He didn’t have trouble transcribing a complicated piece he heard just a single time. None of those things were challenging for him. But what I think he realized the ultimate challenge is, is to create a large-scale piece of music that is satisfying not just for its spectacular effect, but because of the wholeness and the rightness of the form. … He stops merely embellishing things in order to show off, or to be fancy. There’s this kind of patience that his later works show.
“You know, in ‘The Magic Flute’ you see the influence of Masonic thinking; Mozart was a freemason, and it was a kind of religion for him. He was very taken with the ideals of universal brotherhood that the freemasons offered. I find it so touching, because Mozart, in spite of being celebrated and having quite a busy social life, you wonder if he felt lonely just because of the demands that his own gifts made on him.”
Aucoin composed his first proper piece, “Cloud Symphony,” at age 4, and by 11, he could play Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” on piano — not long after which he composed his first opera. In his teens he was already attracting attention from local press as a prodigy. But he demurs when asked if his experiences granted him insight into Mozart.
“I wouldn’t want to exaggerate my own status,” he says. “I feel lucky that I’m able to live a life in music, and that I can support myself that way. I’m decently well known in the classical music world, but that’s not the same as being Justin Bieber. [Laughs] And thank God — I wouldn’t want that kind of life, that kind of pressure. I will say about Mozart, though, that his music has been a friend for as far back as I can remember. I sort of think Mozart’s music answered the question of whether life is worth living for me before I even knew how to ask that question. It’s just this purity and this radiance that is just unquestionable.”
A pivotal high school experience colors Aucoin’s vision of classical music. While performing in classical piano competitions, he joined his school’s jazz band and noticed other students playing jazz and rock “because they wanted to jam” — unlike many kids in the classical world who were pushed into being overachievers by hyper-ambitious parents. His own parents, a reporter and a technical writer, nurtured his talents gently.
“It was this horrifically competitive, cutthroat, sometimes joyless thing,” he recalls of the classical world he observed then. “On the other side of the field, so to speak, I saw kids playing jazz and forming their own rock bands, and … it struck me as a much more natural way to express what I wanted to express musically. At heart, I’m a composer. I live to make music — to write my own. What’s really kind of shameful about the way classical music is taught in America today is that all too often kids are taught just to execute the so-called great music of the past, without being nurtured to write music of their own. Whereas in jazz, of course, the act of playing music, and the act of composing music, is the same act! You’re taught to improvise from day one. So it makes a lot of sense to me that I turned to jazz piano. And I had a blast — I made some lifetime friends forming my rock band.”
He was in college when he returned to classical music, renewed by the spontaneity and exploration he discovered in jazz and rock. He hopes those qualities still inform the music he composes.
“In jazz, you have to be able to think on your feet and actually invent music in real time. The beat is happening; there’s no time to sit back and structure it intellectually before you play it. Thinking and performing are the same thing. That is so useful, when you’re writing a piece, to be able to think in real time. It keeps you in touch with what the experience of performing actually is.”
The only challenge to music as a “potential life path,” he says, was poetry. At Harvard he majored in English and studied with poet Jorie Graham, who emboldened him to “make a go for it as a musician.” Graham helped him see that he was employing musical technique in his poems, and also encouraged him to stay open to “the poem that wants to get written through you, rather than the poem that you sat down wanting to write. That as a spiritual principle has been important to me, and it certainly informed my compositional process.”
At present, his crammed schedule allows little time for writing poetry. “I would love to organize my thoughts about music into some kind of book-shaped object at some point,” he says, although there’s no timetable for writing that either. For now, Mozart beckons. n
“Mozart: Truth Through Beauty”: LA Opera artist-in-residence Matthew Aucoin conducts singers from LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist program at the following locations; for more info, visit matthewaucoin.com and blog.laopera.org/mozart-truth-beauty.
~ 8 p.m. Thursday, May 18, at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; $10 (students admitted free). Info: (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.com
~ 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 23, at Brand Library & Art Center, 1601 W. Mountain St., Glendale; free admission. Info: (818) 548-2051, glendaleca.gov/government/departments/library-arts-culture/brand-library-art-center
~ 2 p.m. Friday, May 26, at the Huntington Art Gallery Loggia, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; free with museum admission. Info: (626) 405-2100, huntington.org